Etain, one of the 10 registered, vertically integrated medical marijuana businesses in New York, is doing everything it can to provide its patients with safe access to medical cannabis despite operating in the state–and the city–at the epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
New York has more than 263,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the latest updates from the New York State Department of Health, the most in the U.S. About half of the state’s cases are within New York City. A stay-at-home order is in effect until May 15, but as in many other states, the medical marijuana program is considered an essential business, and companies can stay open.
Etain has been able to retain its 50 employees, 20 who work in cultivation and manufacturing, 20 who work in the company's four dispensaries and 10 at the corporate office, says Hillary Peckham, co-founder and COO of the family-owned business. In addition to sanitation and social distancing protocols, people no longer work between the dispensary locations, arrival times and lunch breaks are staggered, and employees are wearing masks and gloves in the dispensaries. On the cultivation side, not much has changed, as staff already wore personal protective equipment (PPE).
“We’re trying to make sure everyone feels taken care of and everyone feels safe across the board, employees and patients. That has been my biggest role here and what I’ve spent most of my time on,” Peckham says.
Etain has conducted first-time and follow-up appointments with patients via phone or video conference since March. Patients are encouraged to order online or call their orders ahead rather than walk-in, and Etain already offered delivery services before the pandemic, Peckham says. However, plans to expand delivery in 2020 were expedited, and patients now can order delivery five days a week instead of just one.
“We’ve been ramping up delivery services, particularly in New York City, where it is the epicenter of this virus,” Peckham said, adding that many patients in Manhattan use public transportation exclusively, and do not want to venture out on crowded subways or buses, or have conditions that prevent them from doing so. “We would generally see 30 to 50 people a day [in the Manhattan dispensary.] Now it’s significantly reduced, but the delivery demand has gone up immensely. Delivery has been essential for them to continue to get their medication.”
Etain is also offering discounts on 30-day supplies, the maximum a patient can order at a time under New York’s medical program, to discourage multiple trips to the dispensary but make bulk purchases more affordable. Lozenges have been a popular method of medicating during the crisis, Peckham says. In light of coronavirus, the New York Medical Marijuana Program (MMP) changed the delivery requirement from two people per vehicle to one, which also has helped, Peckham says.
“I know so many patients are so grateful that we are able to stay open because they do rely on this for quality of life,” Peckham says. “I think that makes a very strong statement for the need of [cannabis] as medicine and validates the medical program. People are really using this for quality of life and to treat medical conditions and being able to continue that care is an essential service. I think nationally it has made headlines because it’s a shift in the way people think about this.”
Although Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently put adult-use legalization efforts on hold as the state combats coronavirus, Peckham believes minor adjustments to the medical program could expand access in the meantime.
“We can’t give patients more than a 30-day supply, which is something I’d like to see expanded to 60 or 90 days,” Peckham says. In a previous interview with Cannabis Dispensary, she also noted the need for the state to expand the limited list of qualifying conditions, which include ALS, cancer, epilepsy and neuropathy. Since the program’s launch, chronic pain and opioid-use disorder have been added to that list, expanding the number of patients who qualify. After chronic pain was added in March 2017, the number of registered patients nearly tripled in the state by the end of that year, going from about 20,700 to close to 58,000.
There are 114,533 certified patients in the program as of April 21. That figure has not changed much since September 2019, when there were about 107,870 registered patients, and Peckham says that the number of patients registered has actually decreased during the pandemic.
“For the first time in the lifetime of the program, the [MMP] published the total numbers of registered patients in the state, and we’ve seen a decline in the total number of people registered in the program since coronavirus occurred,” Peckham says. “We think that’s largely because people can’t get access to physicians right now, because either those physicians are working in hospitals with coronavirus patients or they only do in-person appointments, and people don’t want to travel to them. We’ve seen a decline of about 40 patients per day for the past couple weeks now, and that is a new dynamic.”
Cannabis Dispensary was not able to confirm this information with the MMP or the Department of Health, but has a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request in process.
Etain planned to launch its rebranded product line and also move its Manhattan store to another location within the city during the month of April (4/20), but those plans are on hold for now. Peckham is hopeful they can move forward in the summer, though many of the changes they’ve implemented will continue.
“We’ve definitely heightened our sanitary practices with cleaning the dispensaries, and that we’ll maintain. I don’t know when we get through this, when social distancing protocols have to stop,” she says. “The societal shift will permanently impact everybody, at least for a while. Everyone is going to have to be more aware of the impact they can have on their community and on their surroundings with potentially affecting someone with the virus until we have a vaccine or we get through this.”